How the Internet Saved History

I think that future historians will love the Internet because it has brought the written word back into day-to-day human affairs.

Up until the mid-20th Century, letters were the primary means of non-face-to-face communications. Letter writing was so important to social and political dialog of the 18th Century that the American founders created the flat-rate postal service within the U.S. Constitution itself. Over the course of a lifetime, a politically, socially or economically active individual would write thousands of letters, often several a day. It was common practice to save such communications. For historians, these are a valuable insight into the thinking of the people corresponding. The tradition of leaving one’s “papers” to an institution is largely a matter of archiving one’s lifetime correspondence.

The rise of the telegraph and then the telephone muted the historical record. People rarely saved telegrams and almost nobody recorded telephone calls. From WWII up until the mid-’90s, a lot of historically important dialog disappeared into the ether. The history of the era is largely an oral one, collected post hoc from survivors. Such oral histories, heavily shaded by hindsight and contemporary sensibilities, give a much different view of events than written communications done as part of actual events. We especially miss the evolution of ideas over time.

The rise of the Internet has brought written communication back into the day-to-day world and given us a means of capturing the thinking of people for the historical record. Computer historians have already used early Internet archives to rewrite the early history of the Internet itself (which was what most of the early dialog on the Internet was actually about). Future scholars of the “9/11 era” and beyond will lean heavily on Internet sources to understand the thinking of people in the early-21st Century.

My advice? Save everything you write. These days it is cheap and easy to do so. You never know what future historians will want to know about your life. Even trivial emails or IMs about what groceries to get might become part of somebody’s doctoral thesis someday.

12 thoughts on “How the Internet Saved History”

  1. Gerhard Weinberg had an essay about the Death of Ranke’s history, i.e. of document-based history. The paper corpus for the 20th century is crumbling into powder. A lot of it has decayed to the point it is unusable before it could ever be analyzed. That essay is very much worth reading.

    I disagree about the electronic media we use now being a preservative. I suspect that it will be similarly lost and unusable, but even more quickly and completely. The technology rolls over frequently and the materials which cannot be read are discarded. We see this in litigation. Old records are difficult to read or use, when they exist, and by old I mean on the order of ten years. I recall being confronted by a room half-filled with that pale-green computer paper in response to a production request. And it was by luck that those records, from a large and important organization, even existed. I am sure they no longer do.

    Moreover, the fact that electronic documents are so easy to duplicate and circulate means that decision makers commit less and less of their serious deliberations to paper. This is true of government and private entities. Added to this is the practice of “docoment retention policies”, a euphemism for document destruction. Plus, decision-makers no longer keep diaries, which are subject to subpoena. All we will have is the final, formal, published pronouncements. The decision-making process will be completely opaque.

    I think the period we are living in will be a historical blank.

  2. Who knows. Technology changes frequently and it’s difficult to foresee which technologies will be most durable. I have a bunch of obsolete software and records on 5-1/4″ diskettes — they are practically unreadable. I have an old computer with a 5-1/4″ drive that I keep for such purposes, but that’s hardly a robust information-storage solution. (At some point I’m sure I will discard it.) As Lex points out, paper isn’t always durable. One notable example is faxes on old-style heat-sensitive paper, which fade within a few years even if kept in the dark.

    Digital media seem particularly troublesome. CDs, which we used to assume were reliable, are known to deteriorate, some within a few years of use. 3-1/2″ diskettes that have been stored for a few years often fail, in my experience. Old, larger-size diskettes are practically hopeless, because you can’t easily buy a reader. Hard disks are pretty good, but they don’t last indefinitely. And even if you store a hard disk there’s no guarantee that it will remain usable or that you’ll be able to access it easily with future computers. And file formats, even “standards” like .tif and .jpg, may have multiple variants that can complicate reading them. There is no guarantee you’ll be able to read anything from now, in the not-so-distant future.

    The biggest reason for optimism, IMO, is the declining cost of electronic storage, which makes it increasingly practical for individuals and institutions to keep rolling their data onto newer media. Thus, as long as you keep backing it up, and transferring it to modern hard disks (or whatever) as necessary, you can reasonably expect to maintain a complete historical record. The tradeoff is that you have to keep maintining it: no more leaving it in file cabinets or shoe boxes for twenty years. But there are always tradeoffs, and maybe the current options aren’t so bad in historical perspective.

    BTW, I’m in the midst of scanning the negatives of some old family photos. Some of these films are 70 years old and are deteriorating. Still, I wonder if any of our current digital media will last half as long.

  3. I should add that while I am optimistic about how current technology can help individuals and institutions, I think it’s likely that careful archiving will be, as always, the exception rather than the rule. So Lex may be right about the 20th Century, and it’s conceivable that the new century will be at least as badly documented from the standpoint of future historians.

  4. Digital = extremely volatile. Take my email for instance. I’ve been writing email since 1994. Through several different email systems and programs, the only constant has been my yahoo account circa 2000. I started with Eudora. I tried backing up the mailbox file, but it got lost along the way. Then I started working, and they used Lotus notes, that got wiped when I changed jobs. I backed up the file, but can’t read it since you need a Notes client. So along the way that file got lost. Ironically, my yahoo account has been the most constant “address” I’ve had. I moved 5 times in the last 5 years, with 5 different phone numbers and cellphone numbers. But the good old yahoo account has been there. I’ve been in the middle of nowhere, but as long as I had an internet feed, I’m as good as at home. Space use to be a problem, but now they upped it to 250mb, so no more problem.

  5. I am still using a 1995-vintage Eudora freeware email client. It’s a bit clunky, but one of its advantages is that it stores messages in a format that is readable by any text editor. At one point I switched to OE for email, but I subsequently lost more than a year’s worth of archived messages because my computer’s HD crashed, and I either hadn’t backed up the right files from OE or corrupted them somehow — and being in a proprietary format they were difficult to test for integrity.

  6. I don’t know, the ease of backup and the cheapness of storage means electronic backups may be more robust than you guys think.

    For instance, I have on my current computer most of the documents and pictures (including drafts and failed experimental versions) that I created on my dad’s old 286 around 1989. I’ve got full source files for a number of musical recordings I made around 1997. I have a backup of every paper I wrote in college. Modern programs almost all have very capable backwards compatibility capability, and reverse engineering binary formats for important files is far from impossible.

    The cheapness and continuing advancements in storage technologies means every new computer Iíve bought has had 5-10 times more disk space than the previous one, so every time I upgrade I copy the whole drive over as backup. Keep the old drive around in case of emergency and youíre likely to lose very little data. I actually havenít had a hard drive failure on any of my machines in about 5 years, but I know Iím lucky on that front.

    However, storage tech keeps getting better and more reliable, a trend thatís not likely to change anytime soon, and copying electronic documents to multiple locations is vastly easier than the physical alternative. Paper may last longer, but is less likely to be duplicated.

    Multiple storage locations also minimize potential loss. For instance, Iíve got my digital music and photo collection stored in about 5 different places. I always have at least two copies of all my mail, one at the office, and one at home. My archives go back to about ’97.

    The internet lacks a central archive, but it does have its share of redundancies. Google caches massive amounts of the web, and uncountable other smaller proxy servers keep web content stored locally. Iím sure services like LexisNexis have a very capable backup and emergency storage system.

    Sure, global nuclear war could erase much of this information with overwhelming EMP bursts, but if thatís the case who cares about the historical record?

    I think the larger issue for future historians will be finding something useful amid an overwhelming accumulation of crap. A 22nd century historian will have far more trouble finding a copy of Bushís speeches because of the proliferation of porn than from lack of source material…

  7. This is an interesting question to me because I’m a professional historian, one who has spent years working with yellowing, crumbling, nearly illegible documents as well as some well-preserved ones. The latter are invariably the older ones. The thing they all have in common is that they were intentionally archived documents that someone had caused to be preserved. Accidental archives are the exception to the rule.

    The important stuff is being saved, just as always. The difference is that the copy machine and the laser printer, over the past thirty or forty years, have created a much bigger challenge for those whose responsibility it is to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Archival standards are well established and are evolving to meet the challenge of digital media. Though they are responsible for destroying information that was routinely saved decades earlier, records retention policies and schedules are absolutely crucial to ensure that more of the wheat doesn’t go out with the chaff.

    About a decade ago I worked for a government agency that changed computer platforms in a big way. Important documents (i.e., those meeting established criteria) were laboriously printed on archivally stable paper with archivally stable ink and added to the stream of the records retention schedule. In the absence of viable archival standards for early digital media, ink on paper remains a time-tested method for preserving transient policy and thought.

    Regarding my own digital collections, I’ve been fortunate to choose stable platforms that have changed very little over the years. With the exception of some documents I wrote on a Digital DECmate circa 1983, everything I’ve written as an adult is still electronically viable. As Jonathan notes, programs that use text rather than a proprietary scheme will endure better over time; that said, the largest companies (i.e. Microsoft) often take the long view and don’t evolve standards that orphan data very often. Every Word(tm) document ever written is still instantly readable. I’ve generated thousands of those over the past 18 years, since I got my first Macintosh, and I still have most of them–but the important ones, the ones I want to make sure my great-grandchildren will see, are already committed to ink and paper. I will feel better when the my past four or five years’ worth of digital photographs are similarly safe.

  8. It was some decades back when I first read of how many science fiction novels were slowly crumbling away. The low popularity of the genre, and the relatively low number of sales, meant that publishers printed most sci-fi on acid based paper. Even the hard bound copies were usually yellowed after a few years even if the pages were never directly exposed to light.

    There’s a similar problem with film stock, and many master prints of old films are now lost.

    What’s the answer? Like Phil pointed out, cheap digital technology means that it’s oh so easy to preserve documents for a long time. But, as Capt. Mojo said, this also means that the signla-to-noise ratio is rather high.


  9. There may be another element to all this: whether, in the future, people will care in a historical sense about the past. The media may or may not survive — but does the digital era promote 1) an interest in history (ie., depth, context), or does it 2) promote a kind of wallow in an eternal present. And if it’s 2, perhaps no one will really care (a few eccentrics aside) whether the hard drives and flash memory sticks crumble.

    I mainly follow the arts, and one of the most striking developments in the last few decades has been not the loss of history so much as the loss of interest in history. An example: film history. It used to be standard for people interested in movies to delve into (and often prefer) old movies. You had your fave silents, your fave Russians, your fave neorealists, etc. These days, even film-crazy kids often consider anything older than “Pulp Fiction” to be … I dunno, depressing to think about, or something. There are a few film-history buffs here and there. But learning something about the medium’s history seems to be an option more and more film nuts are foregoing.

    I think a reason for this is that the electronic media promote impact and information. It hits you and then it’s gone. (Film based imagery is more prone to invite you in to spend time and explore; electronic imagery tends to pop out and whap you around.) If you grow up assuming that getting whapped-around by electronics is what a cultural life is, then it makes sense to me that you’d never get interested in history. You’d bolt from whapping-around-experience to whapping-around-experience instead, and figure that’s what it’s all about.

  10. YUP. Where would we be without Algore’s invention? Everyday, I just want to bow (ass backwards) in his direction.

    But it was worth hearing this straight from Algore’s mouth, ya know. Because I knew he didn’t have a clue.

    And, when you’re in business with a model … should I rephrase this? When you’re drawing a business model for your business; the alert person knows the value of being there FIRST. Why do you think we talk about light bulbs when ideas go off? Because we beat the MSM, through the Usenet at first, which was designed to connect people to each other … to talk about their ideas.

    Don’t want to say this, but without George Soros’ money the MSM would have figured out they lost their customer base. Ditto, those sclorotic idiots who can’t see a problem with Ted Kennedy leading any party anywhere … because all his parties need booze to flourish. May they continue to keep on drinking their Kool-Aid.

    I’m such a happy camper. And, when I look out of my door in the mornings, I hardly ever see a flung newspaper waiting for retrival. We’ve been winning this war for quite a while.

    Besides? Did you notice John O’Niell was a top attorney? Point to the idiots who are journalists and tell me the quality of their credentials? Maybe, the MSM thought it was assymetrical. But the power is ours! Beware my fingertips. I shall be heard!

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